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post #1 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-06-2007, 07:20 AM Thread Starter
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Thrilling! Tried this TK?

heh, heh......Damn exciting! Saw the 2 part Documentary on Discovery/History Channel. Have you been tempted TK? heh, heh.....

Building Canada's Epic Ice Road

The truckers who haul 70-ton rigs hundreds of miles across Canada's frozen lakes aren't afraid of much — except warm weather.

Loaded with diesel for diamond mines, tankers on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road wait their turn to cross a frozen lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. Last winter, for the first time, the ice didn't thicken to the consistent 40 in. required to support the heaviest rigs.

By Jeff Wise
Photographs by Teru Kuwayama
Published in the February 2007 issue.

Page 1 2 Next »

The temperature: 10 below zero. The location: the middle of frozen Waite Lake in the Northwest Territories, 1000 miles north of the U.S. border. I'm with six Canadian ice-road experts on the shoulder of a highway that curves from the powder-frosted shoreline forest, across the lake and into the distance. In the pale light of winter, even the sun seems frozen.

Fifty yards away, a tanker truck hauling 40 tons of fuel oil inches forward, its huge diesel rumbling. I'm startled to hear the ice beneath our feet make a sound like shattering window glass, but no one else seems to notice. Apparently, ice that's 3 ft. thick behaves this way when you drive a massive truck over it.

But something else I notice is definitely not normal. A few yards from the road, Waite Lake's smooth surface rears up in jagged shards; beyond is a pool of black water. The formation is called a blowout, a slow-motion upheaval of ice that produces what looks like a bomb crater. As the tanker eases past, the water rises, laps the blowout's shattered margins, then subsides. The experts watch intently in silence. When it's your job to maintain a road made of ice, the last thing you want to see is water.

+ Click to enlarge

Map of the Ice Road (Illustration by Agustin Chung)
Here in the Northwest Territories, the terrain is all but impassable for much of the year, a vast wilderness of lakes, boreal forest and spongy tundra. Nearly twice the size of Texas, the Northwest Territories are home to only 42,000 souls and just 570 miles of paved road. If you want to get almost anywhere, you have to fly.

Then, in early November, winter comes. As temperatures plummet, the lakes freeze over and the marshes turn rock solid. Once the ice is a foot thick — usually by late December — snowplows fan out into the hinterlands, blazing routes to native villages and mining camps by clearing insulating snow off the ice to speed the thickening process.

When it comes to epic northern engineering, nothing tops the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, a superhighway of ice that extends 370 miles from north of Yellowknife into the neighboring territory of Nunavut. To build it, 140 workers from the Nuna Logistics construction firm struggle through 20-hour nights and windchills that dip to 70 below. By the end of January, they have completed the longest heavy-haul ice road in the world, as wide as an eight-lane highway. When the ice thickens to 40-plus in. — typically, in late February — it is capable of supporting 70-ton eight-axle Super B Train articulated trucks.

The road services mines that tap into rich deposits of diamond-bearing kimberlite. Since the first samples were found here in 1991, Canada has gone from marketing no diamonds to being the world's third largest producer by value (after Botswana and Russia). Last year, two mines in the territories produced more than 12 million carats, worth $1.5 billion (U.S.). This year another mine will open, at Snap Lake, halfway up the Tibbitt to Contwoyto road. To operate the mines, 300,000 tons of fuel, explosives, steel and concrete must be hauled in over the ice each year.

If you want to learn about Canadian ice roads, sooner or later you have to talk to John Zigarlick. In the early '80s, as president and CEO of Echo Bay Mines, he oversaw the construction of a gold mine 250 miles north of Yellowknife, and the ice road to reach it. After Zigarlick retired in 1998, he waited all of about two weeks before founding a new company, Nuna Logistics, and convinced Echo Bay to let him manage the road.

In those days, before diamond mining, a typical winter saw 700 to 1000 truckloads run north on the ice road, mostly to the gold mine. Fast forward seven years: With the diamond business exploding, demand for haulage has increased tenfold. But there's one problem facing Zigarlick's road — a little thing called global warming.

The author watches a maintenance crew drill for water to thicken the road.

"This is the worst bloody year ever," Zigarlick says, still eyeing the Waite Lake blowout. An affable, soft-spoken man of 69, he's not prone to exaggeration. According to scientists, the winter of 2005-06 is the warmest since recordkeeping began in 1850. In December 2005, when the mercury should have read 10 below zero, temperatures hovered around freezing. The ice didn't thicken enough to bear traffic until Feb. 5, 2006. Now it's late March, and it still hasn't reached the 40 in. needed to support fully loaded trucks. This season is no fluke: With the exception of two springs, 2002 and 2004, seasonal temperatures in the Canadian Arctic have remained above normal for the past eight years.

Earlier today, when Zigarlick and I left the gravel highway that ends about 40 miles northeast of Yellowknife and headed out onto the ice road, we frequently encountered long, inch-wide cracks. An hour in, as we crossed a small pond, we passed a cordoned-off area where a plow had fallen through the ice. The most worrisome stretch of road is here on Waite Lake. For reasons no one quite understands, the ice in one 20-ft. section has failed to thicken properly, forcing road managers to come up with creative solutions. Out in the middle of the lake, engineers have laid down a "rig mat," a lattice of steel and wooden beams, and frozen it into the ice to bridge the weak spot. It should hold — for now. But the season doesn't end until early April, and thousands of truckloads are still waiting to be dispatched from Yellowknife.

Zigarlick and I continue north in his Ford F-350 Super Duty pickup. The trees become shorter and sparser until they disappear altogether. Where the route rises onto portages between lakes, Nuna's crews pack down ice and snow over a gravel bed. But 85 percent of the road lies over lakes. Some are so long they take hours to cross; one is nicknamed Two Movie Lake because that's how many DVDs the truck drivers can watch as they crawl along.

The wide, straight road — white against the white landscape — yields a monotony that never quite numbs the reality of danger. Many seasoned veterans forgo seatbelts; if the surface gives way, a trucker will have mere seconds to jump clear. The most recent fatality in the Northwest Territories was a 23-year-old who was plowing an ice road near Yellowknife; he drowned when his truck broke through. In 2000, a Nuna worker's plow plunged through the ice on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto road, and though fellow workers pulled him clear, the shock of frigid water and freezing air triggered a fatal heart attack.

Near twilight, as we cross Lac de Gras, tendrils of wind-borne snow twist over the turquoise ice like cold smoke. A light snow begins to drift down; the sun is a fuzzy orange ball in a sky as featureless as the landscape. Then comes nightfall. It's 22 below and winds gust to 46 mph, whipping the drifting snow into an opaque froth. Zigarlick loves this kind of weather: "If it holds for two weeks, we'll be fine."
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post #2 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-06-2007, 12:12 PM
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I've watched it when it was on. They drive about 20 mph though. We drive 75 on ice slicked roads up and down mountains. My balls are bigger, heh heh.

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post #3 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-06-2007, 12:25 PM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by ThrillKill View Post
I've watched it when it was on. They drive about 20 mph though. We drive 75 on ice slicked roads up and down mountains. My balls are bigger, heh heh.
heh, doubt, with the assurance of solid ground under your wheels! heh, heh......these guys are on floating ice at minus 35F! Hell of a long run as well!
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post #4 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-06-2007, 12:50 PM
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I love that show, I watched the entire season on the history channel. Good stuff. They took speeding extremely seriously.

3. Paul Hamm, Gymnast: I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father.
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